Barr, William Pelham

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Barr, William Pelham

William Pelham Barr served as attorney general of the United States from 1991 to 1993 under President george h.w. bush.

The son of Donald Barr and Mary Ahern Barr, William Barr was born May 23, 1950, in New York City, and was schooled there. He completed an undergraduate degree at New York's Columbia University in 1971 and began a two-year master's program in Chinese studies. Armed with his graduate degree, he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1973 and went to work as a staff officer with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was accompanied by his wife, Christine Moynihan, to whom he was married on June 23, 1973.

While working at the CIA, Barr enrolled in the night program at George Washington University Law School. He earned his law degree in 1977, graduating second in his class. After law school, he clerked for one year with the presiding judge of the District of Columbia Circuit Court. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1977 and to the District of Columbia bar in 1978. Also in 1978, Barr accepted an associate position at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts, and Trowbridge. There, he concentrated on civil litigation and federal administrative practice.

In 1982, Barr was named to President Ronald Reagan's Domestic Policy Council. During his two years of service, he became well known and respected by the administration and leaders in the Republican Party.Barr returned to Shaw, Pittman in 1984, to resume his legal career. He was made a partner of the firm in 1985.

After several years in private practice, Barr reentered public service in 1989, when he was named assistant attorney general by the George H.W. Bush administration. He took over the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, where his role was to advise the White House and the attorney general and other administration officials. Historically, the Office of Legal Counsel has been called upon to reassure presidents that their intended actions are within the law.

As assistant attorney general, Barr authored two controversial advisory opinions that allowed President Bush to expand his war on drugs and to apprehend Panamanian drug lord Manuel Noriega. One opinion (13 U.S. Op. Off. Legal Counsel 387) held that U.S. military forces could be assigned to law enforcement operations abroad, and the other (13 U.S. Op. Off. Legal Counsel 195) that the president had authority to order the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to arrest fugitives overseas without consent of the local government.

Barr was named deputy attorney general in 1990. He became acting attorney general in June 1991 when richard thornburgh resigned to enter the race for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Barr was nominated and confirmed as attorney general in the fall of 1991, becoming, at age forty-one, the youngest person to hold that post since ramsey clark, who was appointed in 1967.

After years of unpleasant and adversarial relationships with Attorneys General edwin meese iii and Thornburgh, Congress welcomed Barr's appointment. Members of Congress praised his candor and cooperation, and they supported his decision to launch internal investigations into the Justice Department's handling of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) scandal and the Inslaw computer scandal. BCCI was shut down by bank regulators in 1991 for massive Fraud, theft, Money Laundering, and the financing of arms deals and terrorist activities. Depositors lost billions when the bank's assets were seized. Inslaw, Inc., accused the Justice Department of conspiring to steal its proprietary software after the company's government contract had been revoked.

The American Bar Association was encouraged by Barr's willingness to reconsider a Thornburgh decision that prevented local bar associations from interviewing judicial nominees, and an editorial in the November 25, 1991, issue of National Law Journal praised the department planned by the new attorney general as less political, more open, and more "inclined toward integrity" than the departments run by his immediate predecessors in the ronald reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.

"I don't care how much political pressure is brought to bear … [or that] the Op-Eds [and] journalists are saying … it's not fast enough for them. The standard will stay where it is."
—William Barr

However, Barr's honeymoon with the Democratic Congress and the nation's legal press did not last. Barr was soon criticized for his inability to obtain CIA cooperation in the BCCI and Banca Nationale del Lavoro (BNL) investigations and for delays in closing down the BCCI. A CIA investigation revealed that an Atlanta, Georgia, branch of the BNL had provided fraudulent loans to Iraq—loans that helped Saddam Hussein to build his military strength. Barr's internal investigation of the theft of an Inslawdeveloped computer program by government officials was tagged a whitewash. He angered Japanese officials when he announced a change in antitrust policy that allowed the Justice Department to bring cases against Japanese cartels that restricted U.S. exports. Moreover, Barr fought popular opinion and strong evidence of improprieties by the Justice Department when he continued to support the deportation of John Demjanjuk—wrongly accused of being the infamous Nazi death camp guard who was called Ivan the Terrible.

Finally, Barr took the unprecedented step of denying a congressional request for an independent investigation into the events known as Iraqgate. Barr said he and the Justice Department would conduct their own investigation to determine whether anyone in the Bush administration had committed a crime by giving aid to Saddam Hussein prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the resulting Persian Gulf War.

Ongoing questions about the administration's knowledge of, and involvement in, Iraq-gate contributed to Bush's defeat in the presidential election of 1992 and ended Barr's tenure as the nation's attorney general.

In spite of his bright beginning, Barr was unable to depart significantly from the agendas and operational styles of his predecessors and the presidents they served. According to the December 7, 1992 issue of National Law Journal, "Under Presidents Reagan and Bush and their Attorneys General Ed Meese, Dick Thornburgh and William P. Barr, the nation witnessed the politicization of the [Justice D]epartment beyond anything that has gone before".

In 1993, Barr returned to Shaw, Pittman and resumed the Practice of Law. At the time, he was a member of the American Bar Association, the Virginia State Bar Association, and the District of Columbia Bar Association.

Barr later joined Verizon Communications, a provider of phone services as head of its legal department. Under his leadership, the department developed a high percentage of minority and women attorneys and employees. The legal department of New York-based Verizon Communications was named the 2002 Northeast Region Employer of Choice by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA).

In 2001 as the competition between local phone companies and other digital subscriber line (DSL) providers grew, Barr instituted a lawsuit against DSL provider Covad Communications. The suit, which claimed that Covad employees had made false reports that Verizon had obstructed Covad's installation services, was dismissed by a federal district court judge in November 2002.

In addition to his work as general counsel for Verizon, Barr has lectured to groups such as the Federalist Society and has offered advice to the administration of george w. bush concerning legal measures that should be taken to fight Terrorism.

Further readings

Baker, Nancy V. 1992. Conflicting Loyalties: Law and Politics in the Attorney General's Office, 1789-1990. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Department of Justice. 1991. 200th Anniversary of the Office of the Attorney General, 1789-1989. Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice, Office of Attorney General and Justice Management Division.

Fletcher, Martin. 2001. "Terror Leaders Could Die By Firing Squad." London Times. (November 16).

"Legal Job No. 1." 1992. National Law Journal 15 (December 7).

Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA). Available online at <> (accessed May 31, 2003).

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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